Black leaders were reacting with cautious optimism after the White House’s announcement Thursday that President Joe Biden was taking steps to pardon anyone with a federal marijuana conviction as part of a wider effort at marijuana reform.
In statement after statement emailed to NewsOne responding to the news that also provides for the federal government to review how its schedules marijuana, there was one common denominator: People want Congress and governors to act next and do the same for people with prior marijuana offenses on the state level.
In an extreme example, Allen Russell is serving a life sentence in Mississippi after he was found guilty in 2019 of being in possession of fewer than 2.5 ounces of weed. The state labeled him a “habitual offender,” a classification that eliminates any judicial discretion and guarantees harsher sentences for people who have previously been convicted multiple times — even if the most recent offense is nonviolent. If Congress and governors take similar steps to Biden and pardon state marijuana convictions, Russell would theoretically be eligible for parole.
Allen is part of the disproportionate number of Black and brown people who have been affected by the so-called war on drugs. Black leaders stressed how Biden pardoning federal offenders can make serious inroads in the ongoing quest for criminal justice reform in the U.S.
Below is a sample of how Black leaders across the U.S. reacted to Biden pardoning thousands of people with federal marijuana-related convictions.
Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change, called it an “important first step” while calling on other parts of the government to keep that same energy when it comes to drug policy.
“We thank President Biden for this announcement on marijuana reform as it’s an important step in the right direction for criminal justice reform—now it’s Congress’ turn to act,” Robinson said in a statement before adding later: “To ensure that Black and brown people no longer face unreasonable sentencing for marijuana-related offenses, we encourage the Biden Administration to take additional action to build on these critical changes by releasing those currently serving marijuana sentences, withdrawing the Reagan-era executive order on drug-testing employees, and halting DEA enforcement of marijuana laws. Ultimately, we urge Congress to advance marijuana reform policies through the passage of legislation like the MORE Act. It’s time to turn a new page on the war on drugs.”
Legal Defense Fund President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson placed a spotlight on the statistics that showed how an overwhelming number of people who have been sentenced on federal cannabis charges are people of color.
“It is critical that governors across the country follow the President’s lead and fully expunge all cannabis-related convictions and affirmatively restore any and all civil rights that have been forfeited as a result of such convictions,” Nelson said. “We also call on state and federal officials to develop and invest in more comprehensive solutions to harmful forms of drug use, including treatment and recovery programs, and to treat harmful drug use as a public health concern rather than criminalize it. The decades-long effort to embed racism and disinformation into drug policy cannot be easily reversed, but today’s action by President Biden is a powerful example of sound, compassionate, and corrective leadership that should be mirrored at every level of government.”
Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, Chairman of the Conference of National Black Churches, said Biden’s pardons exemplified “compassion” and offers beneficiaries “a second chance” at many aspects of life that had been denied to them because of their convictions for marijuana.
“We pray that governors of states that hope to legalize marijuana follow the President’s leadership by also pardoning these offenses,” Richardson said. “Such an action is a moral imperative before we advance equitable marijuana policies.”
Rev. Al Sharpton, Founder and President of the National Action Network, said he and his organization would continue to monitor the government’s role in the marijuana legalization process.
“I echo the President’s call on governors to follow suit and deliver this same justice at the state level,” Sharpton said. “They cannot legalize marijuana at the state house until they rectify what went on at the jail house.”
Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said she was “thrilled” at Biden’s pardons but said there was much more to do on that front.
“We urge the President to support the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, introduced in the Senate earlier this year, which would fully remove marijuana from the CSA, provide expungement and resentencing for past marijuana convictions beyond simple possession, and comprehensively repair the harms of marijuana criminalization,” Frederique said.
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